WASHINGTON - The National Retail Federation today urged Congress to review and revise controversial rules on the importation of wood products and plant material that retailers fear could lead to unfair government seizure of merchandise ranging from furniture to musical instruments.

"Retailers recognize the need for environmental conservation but the current law leaves them guessing on which products are legal and which aren't," NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said. "Congress needs to carefully review the Lacey Act to ensure that the goal of eliminating illegal logging is its primary objective, not penalizing businesses that are doing their best to comply with an unworkable law."

Shay commented as a subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee prepares to hold a hearing this afternoon on legislation that would reform portions of the law. Laurie Everill, regional customs compliance and operations manager for NRF member IKEA-North America, is scheduled to testify to the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs on the challenges facing companies seeking to comply with the law, and changes sought by NRF to address those challenges, improve enforcement and compliance with the law, and support its goal to end illegal logging.

At issue is the Lacey Act, a century-old environmental law originally directed at illicit trade in threatened and endangered animals. Congress expanded the law in 2008 to ban trade in products containing illegally harvested wood or plant material. Those changes also require importers to document the genus, species and country of harvest of any wood or plant material contained in an imported product.

The Justice Department considers merchandise containing illegally harvested wood or plant products to be contraband, possession of which can result in fines, imprisonment, and seizure and forfeiture of the goods.

NRF has argued that the scope of foreign laws and regulations that could result in a violation is too vague, and it can be virtually impossible to trace all the wood and plant content in many manufactured products, making effective compliance and enforcement of the law extremely challenging.

"It is impossible from looking at or testing wood to determine whether it was illegally harvested," Everill said in remarks prepared for today's hearing. "This exposes companies potentially to millions of dollars in losses through no fault of their own."

The requirement to file declaration forms on the wood content of merchandise is "costly and administratively burdensome for both importers and the U.S. government while achieving little to prevent illegal logging," she said. For products made from composite wood such as particle board and fiberboard -- itself made from sawdust, wood scraps and other remnants that would otherwise be discarded rather than recycled -- determining the wood's origin is "virtually impossible."

The subcommittee hearing today will address two measures intended to address the controversy -- H.R. 3210, the Retailers and Entertainers Lacey Implementation and Enforcement Fairness Act, or RELIEF Act, sponsored by Representative Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., and H.R. 4171, the Freedom from Over-Criminalization and Unjust Seizures Act, or FOCUS Act, sponsored by Representative Paul Broun, R-Ga.

While the two measures have raised awareness of the issue, NRF believes a different legislative approach is needed to address the concerns of retailers more effectively.

NRF is working with the Natural Resources Committee to develop a new bill that would provide due process to importers who have done proper due diligence to ensure their products contain no illegally harvested wood or plant material that would allow them to petition a court for return of any merchandise seized under the law. The new measure would also specify that products made with wood or plant material harvested before 2008 are exempt under the law, clarify the scope of foreign laws covered to those directed at the conservation and preservation of trees and plants, and address fundamental problems with the import declaration requirement.

As the world's largest retail trade association and the voice of retail worldwide, NRF represents retailers of all types and sizes, including chain restaurants and industry partners, from the United States and more than 45 countries abroad. Retailers operate more than 3.6 million U.S. establishments that support one in four U.S. jobs -- 42 million working Americans. Contributing $2.5 trillion to annual GDP, retail is a daily barometer for the nation's economy. NRF's Retail Means Jobs campaign emphasizes the economic importance of retail and encourages policymakers to support a Jobs, Innovation and Consumer Value Agenda aimed at boosting economic growth and job creation. www.nrf.com

Source: National Retail Federation (NRF)


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